Within the pages of the New Testament we learn of three areas of work in which the local church was involved. First, local churches supported the preaching of the gospel (2 Corinthians 11:8; Philippians 4:15-16). Secondly, the local church relieved its own needy saints (Acts 4:32-35) and in some cases sent relief to a church or churches so that the receiving church or churches could relieve their own needy saints (Acts 11:29-30; Romans 15:25-26). And third, the local church devoted itself to its own edification – being built up spiritually through the word of God (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 14; Hebrews 10:24-25).
These collective works of the local church constituted only part of Christians’ service to God, for Christians were taught responsibilities and duties in all relationships of life. And in fulfilling those responsibilities, they were taught that “whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men” (Colossians 3:23). But regarding their collective work in the local church, consider for a moment some instructions and examples in the New Testament that teach us how that work should be carried out.
First, the collective work should be according to ability. It is a Bible principle that our responsibility is according to ability. In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, accountability was according to responsibility, and responsibility came by means of talents that were given “according to his own ability” (v.15). In the case of the church at Corinth making up a collection to be sent to the church in Jerusalem for the needy saints there, they were taught that “it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have” (2 Corinthians 8:12). In other words, working according to our ability is well-pleasing to God.
Second, the collective work of the local church should be done with zeal. Christians are to be Christ’s “own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Zeal is defined as “enthusiastic devotion to a cause, an ideal, or a goal and tireless diligence in its furtherance” (AHD, 3rd edition). Paul commends the churches of Macedonia for their zeal in making up a collection for the needy saints, and he commends Corinth’s zeal also (2 Corinthians 9:2).
Third, the collective work of the local church should be borne out of thoughtful concern or care. Paul praises the church in Philippi for their care for him in sending to him while in prison (Philippians 4:10, 18). The local church’s work of edification stems from consideration and care for one another: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Fourth, the local church’s work is to be done according to opportunity. Paul wrote, “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but lacked opportunity” (Philippians 4:10). The church in Philippi cared a lot for Paul, and when opportunity came to send support to him, they did so by the hand of Epaphroditus (Philippians 4:18, 25). There may be times when care exists without opportunity, but when opportunity appears, the church ought to act according to their ability.
These three works of the local church – evangelism, relief of needy saints, and edification – ought to be executed according to ability and opportunity, out of care and concern, and with zeal. These works assigned to the local church must not be viewed as something to do if we feel like it, i.e. optional, with a take it or leave it attitude. They are divinely assigned to the local church, so they deserve our utmost concern and devotion to do them. Other works, such as caring for non-saints, secular education, wholesome entertainment, social activities, and potlucks, are good activities, but they are not assigned to the local church; they are fulfilled in other realms, such as individually or in the home. There they must stay, and let the church be the church to the glory of her Head, Jesus Christ.